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Today's history lesson: Wilson-Pakula

By Tom Precious

ALBANY – A fight is underway at the Capitol between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers over whether to change a 1947 law that prevents someone not enrolled in a political party to run on that party’s line without permission from party leaders.

Called the “Wilson-Pakula law," it was authored by Assembly Codes Committee Chairman Malcolm Wilson, who years later would briefly become governor, and Irwin Pakula, a member of the Senate from Long Island City.

What follows is the thinking of critics and supporters in letters and memos, including several to Gov. Thomas Dewey, who would go on to sign the law. The thoughts are on file in the measure’s “bill jacket"buried in the files at the Capitol’s legislative library.

First, the side of the supporters, an assortment of mostly Republicans and Democrats who had grown tired of “party raiding" by candidates not registered with their parties. A particular aim of those party insiders was candidates from the American Labor Party. Louis Lefkowitz, who would later become state attorney general, warned in a memo that candidates were “raiding the primary of a political party other than their own." He said the bill was intended to halt “primary-crashing tactics of party raiders.''

In a brief, March 1947 letter to Charles Breitel, the governor’s counsel, Wilson said his bill would produce “a highly desirable end." He did not elaborate.

In a letter to the New York Herald Tribune newspaper – which closed in 1966 and which employed this writer’s late father in some unknown grunt job as a teenager some 80 years ago – Pakula took exception to an editorial condemning his legislation. He said the bill would allow more fusion campaigns through “more democratic means" because non-enrolled candidates would be chosen by a local party’s committee and not just a single leader. [In reality, that would not always prove to be the case depending on the party over the years.] He said more candidates would end up running and that it made no sense that non-enrolled candidates have more power than party committees to get on a ballot.

The Liberal Party of New York State insisted the bill will “cleanse and strengthen direct primaries." It added, “Democracy means political responsibility. It doesn’t mean political anarchy and chicanery."

The measure, signed into law as Chapter 432 by Dewey, had its many opponents. Citizens Union of the City of New York said it “seriously undermines the freedom of expression of the electorate." They said a party’s members, in a primary, should have the ability to reject someone trying to raid a party rather than party leaders.

The National Lawyers Guild, in a letter to Dewey, called the bill “the most dangerous and harmful piece of legislation now pending in Albany." By denying party members to vote in a primary for a non-enrolled candidate, the bill will result in “the suppression of free elections in our state."

City Councilman Stanley Isaacs from Manhattan warned in a letter to Dewey that "it would underline the tendency of party leaders to work out a fusion ticket only if it satisfied them and otherwise would give them the power to scuttle it."

Two unions checked in on the issue. The Transport Workers Union called it "undemocratic and destroys the independent initiative of the electorate," while the Greater New York CIO Council, in a March letter to Dewey, called it classic "boys-in-the-backroom legislation."

"The bill is clearly aimed at the American Labor Party for whose candidates over 400,000 citizens of this state cast their votes," the union said, adding the measure, had it been in place, would have hurt Dewey’s own chances at becoming Manhattan district attorney in 1937.

And from the New York Bar Association, there was this: "The first president of the United States was elected without being required to don a party label. Had this bill been then the law, he could never have been even designated to be a candidate."

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